The Selfishness of Wanting Other People to Be Happy - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

selfishness-happyYou know what I hate most when I’m in a bad mood? Someone telling me to be happy.

It’s not that I’m annoyed by happy people because I’m in a bad mood. It’s that I’m being told that my negative feelings are somehow wrong. Like I’m not supposed to be having them. Why do so many people think it’s important to make others happy?

If someone telling me to “be happy” actually made me happy, I wouldn’t be writing this blog right now. All it does is frustrate me. Actually, it usually just really pisses me off. Or makes me feel bad about myself.

Whatever. The one thing it does not do is make me “be happy.” 

Don’t Make My Feelings About You

The problem is that when someone tells me not to feel the way I feel, I’m suddenly under a lot of pressure to put on a show for them. Now, not only am I upset, but I have to expend the energy into making you feel better.

I still end up with my negative feeling, but I’m wasting more energy faking it. For you. Because you wanted to make others happy.

Seems unfair.

Here’s the deal: as humans, we feel crappy sometimes. And some of those times we are around other people. If other people can’t handle our crappy feelings, then they are basically saying they don’t want to be around other humans. (Good thing water’s been found on Mars.)

Some examples of when people try to make others happy are:

  • I’m sorry your father died. But you can’t feel bad about it, he’s in a better place. (I can feel bad about it. I do. Actually, I’m incredibly upset and angry. Wouldn’t it be weird if I wasn’t since I loved him so much?)
  • She broke up with you? That sucks. Well, no use wasting time feeling sorry for yourself. (But I am sorry for myself. She was awesome. She’s not dating me anymore. I finally had someone to bring to my brother-in-law’s wedding next month. And now I’m not going to have sex as often as I’ve been having it. What is there not to feel sorry for myself about?)

You could probably think of a bunch more. Family are notorious for this. Holidays, special events, even dinner time–parents often want their kids to be expressive, happy, not mopey and all the other moods that don’t come with “good times.”

Getting Off My High Horse…

Ok, so, by the way. I used to do this all the time. (And I’m sure I still slip up and try to make others happy now too.)

For a while I thought being a therapist meant make everyone feel better, all the time.

I remember my first internship year. Someone in a group was crying. I couldn’t understand: why was no one escorting her out, taking her aside, making her feel better? Churches have “cry rooms,” funeral parlors have separate spaces for people who are mourning too loud. Why isn’t there a special room for this person? She couldn’t want to “lose it” in front of all these people.

No one took her aside because that woman needed to cry and she needed to know that everyone in that room could handle her tears. She had been holding back her sadness for way too long and it wasn’t anyone’s job to take that away from her.

We couldn’t, anyway, even if we wanted to.

And, boy, at that time I really did want to. It’s is tremendously difficult to sit in someone’s presence while they are crying. There are instincts to hug them, to tell them it’s going to be okay, to do anything just so they stop crying.

What I learned, though, is that I need to separate what I need from what they need.

A Hard Lesson for Parents

Now take that discomfort and multiply it times one hundred: That’s a parent and a baby. Or a toddler, or a tween, or a fifty-two year old son that is going through a rough time.

Mom, Dad–you can’t make it better. Sure, feed the crying-hungry baby, etcetera, but when someone, no matter how old or young, is upset and they’re not in physical pain and it’s not because you did something, the most self-less thing you can do is just be there.


Let them be incredibly upset. Let them know that it’s okay.

Somewhere along the way parents got the idea that they are supposed to ensure their kid is happy. They not only feel pain that their child is in pain, but they add to that pain by feeling guilty that their daughter or son is suffering. It may be worth looking into your own feelings.

And this isn’t just for helicopter parents. This is a large chunk of parents. I mean, it’s pretty basic, right? I want to protect my child and I want them to not feel bad. The thing is, going back to the start of this article: feeling bad is a part of being human. And you decided to raise a human.

Give Me SOMETHING, though!

But you’re not a therapist. You’re a friend, you’re a cousin, you’re a parent and just sitting there just isn’t going to fly. Want to say something? The examples in the bullets above are fine–if you leave off the last sentence in bold. Or try some of these:

  • That sucks.
  • I’m so sorry, man.
  • I can’t imagine what you’re feeling right now.
  • I would probably feel just as bad if it were me–I don’t blame you for crying.

Say anything that gives the message that their being upset isn’t “too much”. Anything that makes sure that they know they don’t need to take care of you while they’re having a hard time.

And after you’ve sat through that. After you’ve been with them and held back all your reassurances–go find someone else you trust and care about. Someone who’s read this article (or another like it), and let them be with you and witness all your feelings.

That’s the time to be selfish.

Feel free to drop a line if you’d like to talk more about this–whether you’re the one who’s suffering or if you’re trying to help someone else who is.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.